Skip to main content

Full text of "At the front with the Third Michigan cavalry"

See other formats

At the Front with the 

Third Michigan 



Major 3rd Michigan Cavalry 

Published by SAMUEL HARRIS 

Late 1st Lieutenant Campany A, 

Fifth Michigan Cavalry 

Compliments of 


Machinists' and Manufacturers Tools and Supplies 

114 and 116 No. Clinton St. 

Between Washington and Randolph Sts. 



The cycle of time brings us nearer to the point of 
departure from the active scenes of life, yet we have an 
opportunity to briefly review the years of early manhood 
and the struggles of life. We may recall the hopes and 
joys of youth with the labor and cares of maturer years. 

It is now fifty-one years since we met in Grand Rapids 
in response to our Country's call for help. 

A few months before the guns of Sumter had echoed 
over the land. The National Flag, the emblem of our 
national life, had been torn from the sky and blood red- 
dened our hearthstones. Anarchy was storming the land. 
Robert E. Lee, who had been nurtured by the nation, had 
not scrupled to use the Nation's strength to rescue his 
"native State" from the grasp of Old John Brown and 
his 22 invaders at Harper's Ferry. Yes, in her distress 
he invaded his native state with United States troops and 
save her in her hysterical fright and then on the opening 
of war had spent the past few months in attempting to 
coerce his fellow citizens of Western Virginia into the vor- 
tex of secession. 

Alexander W. Campbell, a loyal native Virginian, wrote 
to me in April for arms from Michigan to arm the Union 
men of Wheeling to save Western Virginia from the ordi- 
nance of secession. 

I took the letter to Governor Blair, but he had not yet 
awakened to the necessities of war and could do nothing. 
But after the disaster of Bull Run he awoke and the nation 
was aroused from its lethargy. Lincoln's call for three hun- 
dred thousand more startled the people and the nation 

Colonel Broadhead, who had served as a Captain in 
the Mexican War and was then postmaster of Detroit, was 

authorized to raise the 1st Regiment of Michigan Cavalry. 
I knew him well, and as I had been a captain in an inde- 
pendent military company, he requested me to raise a com- 
pany for his regiment. But owing to an unfortunate social 
habit, it did not seem advisable. I did not use any kind 
of liquor myself and did not approve of it. 

Francis Kellogg, a member of Congress from Western 
Michigan, came to Detroit in July authorized to raise a regi- 
ment of cavalry. I told him my objection to Broadhead. 
He asked me to raise a company for his regiment and told 
me the War Department had promised to give us the best 
colonel of the regular army. I held five public meetings, 
mostly in Clinton County, and raised 150 men and took 
them to Grand Rapids. The 3d Cavalry Regiment was 
there organized and was composed of 12 companies of as 
good material and upright manhood as the state or nation 
afforded. Of course, we were not angels, and were new to 
the business and new to each other. We became acquainted 
with each other and easily learned the duties of camp life. 
"Pearsol's soup" became a little monotonous, but we longed 
for it in after years. Some of the boys got a little inter- 
ested in the goose question one night and the next day the 
regiment was called, and Major Burton, who by the way 
was an ex-clergyman, gladly seized the occasion to deliver 
a homily to the assembled regiment on goose morality or 
mortality. When he was through with his lecture the boys 
were at a loss to know which was the greater goose. Major 
Burton, or the fowl victim. 

Individualities became clearly defined by close acquaint- 
ance. Personal dignity, especially official dignity, became 
very dominant. When we left camp for St. Louis by the 
way of the Detroit and Milwaukee Railway, each officer 
thought he knew his place and was determined to fill it, if 
it burst his head. 

When we took the train for Detroit, the officers took 
the front car and the enlisted men were placed in the rear 
cars. I sat near the rear door of the officers' car. The 
orderly sergeant of Company B, who by the way, was my 
brother-in-law, sat with me. Major Burton stalked in and 
noticed the sergeant sitting with me, said with chilling dig- 
nity, "Sergeant, why are you in this car? You have no 
business here with the officers. The place for enlisted men 
is in the rear cars." The sergeant arose to depart. I 
said, ''Sergeant, sit down, if Major Burton does not wish 
to ride in this car he can go to a rear car himself." The 
major swallowed his dignity and grimly took a seat. 

The regiment reached St. Louis in due time and went 
into Benton Barracks. We drilled there until the 22d of 
February ; then with 10,000 horsemen rode through the 
streets of St. Louis just to intimidate the secession sympa- 
thizers and show our strength and condition. The next day 
we went down the Mississippi by steamer and landed at 
Commerce, Mo. We camped in an old cornfield. It rained 
hard and we slept for the first time out of doors in sev- 
eral inches of water. In the morning we stacked our bag- 
gage on the bank of the Mississippi with the promise that 
it should follow us, but we saw it no more. 

We then rode overland through marshes and forest to 
the seige of New Madrid below Island No. 10, where we 
remained until the place was captured. The incidents at 
the siege of New Madrid were interesting as well as hazard- 
ous. Colonel Mizner came to us there and was received 
with honor. He was a West Pointer and was filled with 
the social exclusiveness of his class. He had been appointed 
to West Point from Detroit. I knew his family. 

Soon after he came to the regiment he was one morn- 
ing riding over the parade ground near my company quar- 
ters. I was sitting in front of my tent, not feeling well as 


I had just come from the hospitah Some of the men were 
pitching quoits nearby. The thought struck me that a Httle 
of the exercise might do me good, so I asked the boys if 
they would let me in. Sure, they would, so I took part in 
the game. The colonel happened to obser\'e me and call- 
ing to a soldier nearby asked him what officer was pitching 
quoits w4th those enlisted men. The reply was ''Captain 
Willcox." "Say to him I wish to speak to him." The soldier 
informed me. I stepped up and saluted the colonel. He 
said, "Captain Willcox, I notice that you are pitching quoits 
with those enlisted men. That will not do." I saluted the 
colonel again and said, "Colonel Mizner, I enlisted those 
men. They are of as good families as there are in Michi- 
gan. There are men in those ranks who are worth more 
property than your family or mine, and besides I think I 
am old enough to determine the character of my associ- 
ates. I have an uncle, a cousin and a brother-in-law with 
those enlisted men." I saluted again and returned to pitch- 
ing quoits and never heard any more about enlisted men. 

A vigorous siege was kept upon New Madrid. You re- 
member our gallant charge on the rebel gunboat and the 
thunder of guns and shells for weeks at Island No. 10. 

On the night of the surrender of the fort, I was ordered 
with two companies to the bank of the Mississippi River 
to block the retreat of the rebels from the fort. It was 
thought to be a perilous night's venture. As we rode past 
regimental headquarters, among the officers who stood ob- 
serving the movement was the redoubtable Major Burton, 
who called out in a commanding voice, "Captain Willcox, 
if a man attempts to leave the ranks, shoot him down." I 
replied, "Major Burton, there is not a coward in these 
ranks." Burton was afterwards dismissed for cowardice. 

After the capture of New Madrid and Island No. 10 
the regiment was placed on steamers with flat boats loaded 


with horses and equipment lashed to the sides of each stern 
wheeler and started down the river to attack Fort Pillow 
near Memphis. We had gone but a few miles when the 
fleet was halted and after waiting a few hours changed our 
course and proceeded up the river by the way of Cairo, up 
the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers to Pittsburgh Landing — 
the battlefield of Shiloh — which battle had just been fought 
and was the cause of the change in our course. We then 
took part in the siege of Corinth as the advance observing 
force of the army of the Mississippi, under Pope on the 
left of the army under Halleck. For a month we were en- 
gaged in the arduous struggle and victoriously rode into 
Corinth one bright morning at 10:00 o'clock on the 30th 
day of May, 1862. The Confederates were totally defeated. 
We pursued them to near Booneville, where we subsequently 
assisted in making Sheridan a brigadier general, who at 
that time was colonel of the 2d Michigan Cavalry. 

Relative to my discipline and treatment of men, I will 
say that I never during my connection with the 3d Cavalry, 
either as captain or as commander of the regiment or as 
major, punished a man or even sent a man to the guard- 
house. I never used an ungentle expression, or had one 
used to me by a soldier. I will relate an incident which 
occurred in and after the siege of Corinth. I with my 
whole company was ordered on a picket line between Farm- 
ington and Corinth immediately in front of the enemy on 
Saturday night and expected to be relieved in the morning, 
but remained there until Monday. It was a perilous posi- 
tion and required the utmost watchfulness. It was my 
custom to visit each sentinel on the picket line twice during 
the night alone. At 1 :00 o'clock I walked down the line 
along the edge of a heavy timber in which the enemy lay 
and quietly spoke to each sentinel. At the end of the line 
in a deep shadow of the woods I found Sam Shaw, a red- 

headed Irish boy about twenty years of age, whom I had 
enlisted. He was in a fence corner with his gun in posi- 
tion, watching intently. I stepped up to him and whis- 
pered, ''Sam, how is it?" He whispered back, ''By the 
Holy Mother, if the devils come here I will give them Hell." 
I placed my hand on his shoulder and said, "Sam, that is 
right." Afterwards when we were encamped near Boone- 
ville, about 25 miles south of Corinth, Sam had wandered 
back a couple of miles to an infantry camp and by some 
means had procured and drank a little too much whiskey, 
in fact, was qikite drunk. He was arrested and under the 
guard of two soldiers was sent back to his camp with orders 
to his commanding officer to tie him up. Of course I knew 
that no officer had authority to order me personally to tie 
up any man, but I did not tell Sam so. I gave him a little 
talk, telling him how sorry I was that so good a cavalryman 
should wander to an infantry camp and get drunk, be 
arrested and sent to me with orders to tie him up. He 
wanted to explain, but I said, "Not a word, Sam. You go 
to your quarters and tie yourself up for an hour." The 
direction almost sobered him. He straightened up and 
walked to his campfire, laid down and placed a surcingle 
across his legs and laid there for an hour. Did I have any 
more trouble with Sam Shaw? Not a bit. Had I tied him 
I would have spoiled a good soldier. 

At the close of the Corinth campaign we marched as a 
regiment into northern Alabama and entered into a vigor- 
ous campaign. Scouring the country, riding night and day, 
swimming our horses across the Tennessee River, driving 
the enemy from that rich valley and receiving a large num- 
ber of recruits, native Alabamians who came to us, refus- 
ing to go with the Confederates. They were of great service 
to us and proved that the South was not united in the project 
of secession. 

To show the necessity of cliose and clear attention in 
moving with Hght commands in an enemy's country, I will 
refer to a scouting party of three companies which was con- 
ducted in western central Alabama. It was a secret expedi- 
tion not to be observed by the enemy. The weather was 
very hot and the dust deep. I noticed while we were march- 
ing one day near sundown, two clouds of dust approaching 
from the south and southwest. I knew at once that our 
movement was discovered or suspected by their having ob- 
served our line of dust and that they were approaching. 
We were at crossroads. I immediately sent twenty m.n at a 
rapid pace half a mile to the southwest and twenty men at 
the same pace and distance to the south to make approaches 
of dust towards the enemy, and meanwhile quietly with- 
drew on our line of march about five miles and went into 
camp. The approaching dust of the enemy being checked 
we saw nothing more of them. 

On another occasion when at Cold Springs, south of 
Tuscumbia, we made a night's march tO' Moulton, the county- 
seat of Lawrence County, to shake up a body of rebels sup- 
posed to be in that vicinity. We started a little after sun- 
down and after riding some miles reached a belt of timber 
on a creek bottom. It was said to be about two miles through 
the timber and in the woods it was very dark. I secured a 
guide and entered the woods. After riding what seemed- a 
long distance we came out at the same place we went in 
at. I said to the guide, 'T thought you said this road led 
through the timber?" He replied, 'Tt does, but I made a 
mistake." ''Well," I replied, "Do you see that tree? If you 
come back here again I will hang you on it." We then 
went through without any difficulty and arrived near the 
town soon after sunrise. As we reached the outskirts of 
the village we passed a small dwelling. I noticed through 
the open door a woman with her back to the door sweep- 


ing. She turned towards the door and her eye caught us 
riding by. In her astonishment she dropped her broom and 
with open mouth raised her hands above her head. I knew 
at once our approach was not known in the village and 
directed Newel with his company to ride through the vil- 
lage at a rapid pace without firing, that he would startle 
the force if there, and while they were staring and wonder- 
ing at his movement we would come upon them and cap- 
ture them. The ruse succeeded and we swept the town. 
On our return march at noon we rested and fed our horses 
by a little brook. When we resumed our march Lieutenant 
Bingham, my wife's brother, commanding Company B, re- 
quested permission to bring his company to the head of 
the column, as they had been all the morning riding in the 
dust of the column. He took the advance and said, after we 
had gon^ a short distance, *Tt will be just my luck to meet 
the rebs." I said, "Of course, we will. The rebels know 
our route and our strength and will attempt to waylay us 
before we reach camp." We soon came to a rather steep 
hill. On the left of the road leading oA'er the hill was a 
deep- wooded ravine. On the right was a conical hill, at 
the foot of which I noticed a pathway. I asked the guide 
where that lead to. He said, "Around the hill to the fork 
of the road." I knew at once that we were likely to meet 
the enemy, and sure enough, they were there and as the 
advance had nearly reached the road elevation we received 
a volley. I directed Bingham to hold his position and took 
the rest of the force on the pathway around the foot of the 
conical hill. We could moA'e only in single file and my 
apprehension was that the enemy might have placed a few 
men on the hill to cover the path. But the rebs had for- 
gotten that part of the game, and we passed around with- 
out hindrance and came out the forks of the road in their 
rear, which placed them between two fires, and routed them 


completely. Many plunged into the ravine at their right. 
Just as I started to go around the pathway I noticed Pat 
Denis from his horse firing into the air and said to him, 
"Pat, lower your gun." He quickly replied, "By the Holy 
Mother, I will bring the devils down out of the mountain." 
Such is the nervous action of men in battle. 

During these months of scouting we passed through 
large stretches of beautiful country and saw fields of cotton 
and corn being cultivated by negro slaves — men, women 
and children — bending down to their labor, with a white 
driver standing in their midst armed with a revolver buckled 
around his waist and a heavy whip in his hand to direct 
and keep them at work. Thus the South were feeding 
their families and their armies while the white men engaged 
in war, and thus was Lincoln's proclamation of emancipation 
which was subsequently issued made necessary as a war 

After a vigilant active service of some months we re- 
turned to Mississippi. 

Owing to the absence of Colonel Mizner, he being in 
command of a cavalry division, and the absence in Michi- 
gan of Major Moyer, I took command of the regiment 
under the following order and executed it and reported to 
Rosecrans' headquarters at Corinth: 

Headquarters, Cavalry Division, 
Tuscumbia, Sept. 8th, Sunday P. M., 12^ o'clock. 
Special Order No. 1 
Major Moyer: 

3rd Mich. Cav. with six of the Co.'s of that Reg't. now 
under his command and four Co.'s of the 7th 111. Cav. will 
move forthwith from their camps in this vicinity and by 
forced marches gain the vicinity of Peyton's Springs, mak- 
ing a demonstration and reconnaissance southward. 


The command will take three days' rations and will move 
without baggage. The camp and garrison equippage and 
their baggage belonging to these Co.'s will be sent under 
escort of a column of infantry from the 2nd Brig., 2nd 
Div. to luka. 

By order of 

J. K. Mizner, 

Col. Comdg. Cav. Div. 
D. M. Caldwell, 
1st. Lieut, and A. D. C. 

He said, "Bragg was threatening Buel in middle Ten- 
nessee. Van Dorn was below Ripley, Miss., and Price was 
at Tupelo, eastern Mississippi. They were anxious to assist 
Bragg, but could not do so while we held west Tennessee, 
Corinth and luka." 

I was instructed to scour the country between luka and 
Tupelo, watch Price, cover his movements and report all 
his movements to his headquarters at Corinth. We soon got 
track of Price's movements and kept in constant touch with 
his forces. We were quietly active in our movements and 
did not camp twice in the same place. 

One morning I sent Captain Latimer to a watermill 
about tliree miles to make observations. In a short time 
we heard firing and moved to his assistance. We found him 
with his men dismounted pegging at some rebs who ap- 
peared to be anxious to cross the mill race to get at him. 
The captain was with his men behind a rail fence vigorously 
objecting. We halted at the edge of a piece of timber with 
our front open to view. The rebs could see us, but could 
not know but that the wood behind us was filled with sol- 
diers. I directed Captain Saylor to dismount his men and 
go to Latimer's assistance and leaving Captain Quacken- 
bush in command, rode directly to Latimer. When I reached 
him I asked, ''How is it going, captain?" He was elated 


and answered, "All right; the cusses want to cross the race 
and I won't let them." I said, "Captain, mount your men 
and retire quickly. Don't you see that at the left ? They 
are after you. They are waiting to see how many we have 
back there in the woods." By that time Saylor had arrived 
and was directed to move in the rear and move deliberately. 

He did not seem to like it and said he would be cap- 
tured. I replied, "You won't be captured if you fight." 
"There are a couple of wounded men back in this farm- 
house who must be saved." The movement had accom- 
plished its purpose. I had my information and we retired 
satisfied and the captain was not captured. 

In compliance with an order I received wx then moved 
at midnight, and on the brow of a hill a short distance south 
of luka near Burnet's Corners on the Tuscumbia Road we 
received a heavy volley from a strong picket force. 

Captain Pope, with ten men was leading the advance and 
I was riding with him. Three men were a few paces in 
advance of us and two of the men fell. A charge was 
ordered and we rushed down the road following the shooters 
as far as Burnett's Corners, where we learned that the 
enemy were camped on the Fulton Road, said to be 3,000 
strong. We returned to the hill, dismounted and rested, 
buried the men who had been killed and remained until 

At Burnt Mills, where we had been a few days before. 
Price was said to be camped with 70,000 men. Of course 
we had to investigate that fact and proceeded to Burnt Mills 
about 12 miles distant. We moved cautiously until we 
came to the brow of a hill, the slope of which was culti- 
vated and which I knew was about half a mile from where 
Price's pickets ought to be if he were there. We halted on 
the brow of the hill. A Captain come to me and said that 
he and two other officers thought we should go no further. 


I said, "What are you here for? We have met no enemy. 
I must have some information. Captain Latimer, are you 
afraid to come to the front?" He promptly replied, ''No, 
sir." "Take your Company to the foot of the hill into the 
timber and select ten men and ride quietly and rapidly on to 
the enemy's picket and capture them. I must have some 
positive information." "Captain Nugent, you will take 
your Company down into the timber and support Captain 
Latimer." "The rest of the command will remain on the 
brow of the hill and support you." In less than half an 
hour Latimer returned with four prisoners. He had run on 
a picket post of five men and captured four of them without 
firing a shot. I got my information from the prisoners and 
reported to Rosecrans that Price with several thousand men 
was on his way to luka. We also had the pleasure of cap- 
turing a six mule team and freight wagon, an artillery cason, 
fifty muskets and a rebel Captain. We retired in good 
shape and I never heard another remonstrance from the 
Captains who thought we had gone far enough. Price cap- 
tured luka. 

Rosecrans came to Rienzi from Corinth with 15,000 
men. He arrived on the evening of the 18th and immedi- 
ately sent an order to me to examine whether the road to 
Burnsville was practicable for the movement of artillery. 
I sent Captain Adams, who reported at midnight that it was 
not. I then received an order to be with my command, the 
3d Michigan Cavalry, .at the Mill Cross Roads at 4:00 
o'clock to take the advance. We were there on time and 
commenced the movement. When we arrived at the brow 
of the hill where we, a few nights before had lost those two 
men, we were greeted with another heavy fire from a strong 
rebel guard. General Hamilton rode up. I asked whether 
the Cavalry should drive the enemy back, or would the 
infantry which was behind us. He said, "If you can do so, 


we wis-h to cover the movement of the troops. Grant is 
moving along the main Corinth road to luka and will make 
the attack and drive Price from luka, and we will cut off his 
retreat." We moved down the hill and drove the rebel forces 
we had met back to their main line. 

When the army reached the Tuscumbia road it halted for 
some little time. I then received an order to proceed again 
in advance on the road to luka. We had gone a couple of 
miles when we crossed a small brook and saw the rebels in 
line across the road and on the brow of a slight elevation 
about 400 yards distant. The advance immediately charged 
on them, but were met with a withering fire and were com- 
pelled to fall back. General Hamilton then rode up and 
directed me to file my command on the right of the road. 
One of Hamilton's aides was shot by my side. I heard the 
thud of the bullet on his breast and his cry of anguish. I 
looked back and the road was filled with soldiers. They 
came on the double quick through the brook and deployed in 
line of battle as they run, rushed in overwhelming force upon 
the enemy line and pushed it back. 

Hamilton's Division moved to the front and the 3d 
Michigan Cavalry were in line along the road side. Gen- 
eral Rosecrans with the army passsed to the front and 
formed in line in front of the enemy. Rosecrans returned 
back and asked me to ride back with him a short distance. 
We had gone but a few yards when he said to an aide, 
"This can not be the road. It must be at the front," and 
we turned toward the front and rode to a log house where 
he had established his headquarters where he examined his 
maps. While looking at them a volley of musketry was 
fired at the front and the general stepped backward a step or 
two, recovered himself and again returned to his maps. He 
then turned to his aide and said, "Place Captain Willcox 
on the road at the right of Cunstable's Ohio Battery." I 


passed Rose'crans' headquarters to the front, through a 
piece of timber and through and past a line of blue, the sol- 
diers lying on their faces silently waiting. I noticed a 
Colonel, an elderly long-bearded man, sitting quietly on his 
horse waiting. We moved to the brow of the hill, passed in 
front of the battery and halted about a quarter of a mile on 
the right. 

In front of the battery was a timbered ravine and beyond 
that a cleared field, sloping down the hillside to a strip of 
willow underbrush, in which was stationed a rebel force. 
From our position we could see a rebel line forming on an 
open space at the foot of the timbered slope and ravine in 
front of the battery on our left at the head of the ravine and 
supported by the line of soldiers lying on their faces, 
through which we had passed in reaching our position. I 
sent a messsenger to inform Rosecrans that the enemy were 
preparing to charge. Several of our men had dismounted 
and stepped a few paces down the slope to a tree and taking 
some fancy shots, among whom was Brock, of Company G, 
an Alabamian, who had joined us at Cold Springs. Brock 
said, "Let us fetch the fellow on the white horse." He 
fired and the man fell. I have no doubt it was General 
Little who was killed in front of the rebel line mounted on a 
grey horse while preparing the charge. 

Another message was sent to Rosecrans that the enemy 
were charging. Immediately the air was filled with lead and 
smoke. The enemy moved up through the timbered ravine, 
reached the battery and captured it, but before they could 
turn the guns, the clear voice of the Colonel, who was sit- 
ting so quietly on his horse rang out, "Prepare to charge," 
and the line of blue arose, charged and seemingly in an 
instant the battery was re-captured, but had suffered the 
loss of most of its horses and men. 


The above was evidently written to be delivered before 
the G. A. R. Post, to which he belonged, but he was taken 
sick and died before he had finished it. 

This is the end of the last written greeting of Major 
Lyman G. Willcox to his brave comrades of the Third 
Michigan Volunteer Cavalry. It was written at the age of 
87, in a hand as clear and legible as that of a young man. 

Shortly afterward, on September 17th, 1918, at 9:00 
o'clock in the forenoon, Major Willcox saluted his Maker — 
with a mind as clear and eye as bright as at any time during 
his life. 

He died at Saint Mary's hospital in Saginaw, Michigan.